Mubarak on trial: should the past be prosecuted?

As I anticipated in an earlier post, the relationship between the Egyptian military and the democracy activists was never as solid as the claims made for it during the revolution and the actions since then by the ruling Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF) — including sweeping arrests, military tribunals, and incarcerations of activists — have caused many to question whether the SCAF is leading a kind of counterrevolution to forestall change.  A large protest has been called for later today to put pressure on the military and, perhaps as a preemptive measure, the SCAF announced this week that Egypt will put former president Hosni Mubarak on trial for killing unarmed protesters during the revolution.

This news is certainly gratifying: more than 800 people were killed during the revolution and there was no more menacing moment than when Mubarak, in his first speech after the uprising started, vowed to preserve peace and avoid chaos — menacing because, to that point, the protests had been remarkably peaceful and unchaotic.  Minutes after Mubarak’s speech ended, the beltageya were sent in and a disingenuous debate ensued about whether the thugs beating protesters were really, as claimed, simply excitable pro-Mubarak supporters or, as everyone knew, the sort of muscle in the paid employ of the Amn al-Dowla usually unleashed around election time.

So Mubarak has more than earned his hour of judgment; after all, he ran a kleptocracy for nearly thirty years in addition to the current charges.  But one of the most pressing questions following any democratic revolution is whether the old regime should be prosecuted for its abuses or the past ignored in the name of national reconciliation.  In practice, the policy followed often depends on the means by which the transition to democracy was effected: if the dictator was forced from power by a surge of opposition (as with ‘people power’ in the Philippines) there are scores to settle and a sense that justice must be done; if the dictator relinquishes power voluntarily (as in Chile after Pinochet, which I wrote about recently) the new democratic consensus can sometimes seem too fragile to withstand close examination of the past, in part because the dictator’s followers generally remain as a substantial faction within the new system.

I would argue that Egypt falls somewhere in the middle of this spectrum, which suggests something about the sort of justice we can expect to see.  The revolution was the result of a spectacular surge of opposition, but the result (so far) has been a decapitation and nothing more: the regime was military in origin — though, arguably, there was a creeping internal coup d’état by the security services beginning in the 1990s — and the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces remains in charge, suggesting a combination of high-level change amid general institutional continuity.  Perhaps the closest parallel to this, though brought about by different circumstances, is the constitutional Spain that emerged after General Franco’s death in 1975, which combined generally feeble democratic political leadership (albeit much of it drawn from the elite of the late-Franco years) and an inordinately powerful military behind the scenes.  In The Anatomy of a Moment, Javier Cercas writes about Spain in those years:

A historiographical cliché has it that the change from dictatorship to democracy in Spain was possible thanks to a pact of forgetting.  It’s a lie; or, what amounts to the same thing, it is a fragmentary truth…Speaking in general, the transition — the historical period we know by that misleading name, which suggests the falsehood that democracy was an inevitable consequence of Francoism and not the result of a willed and improvised series of chances enabled by the decrepitude of the dictatorship — was a pact by which the vanquished of the Civil War agreed not to settle scores for what had happened during 43 years of war and dictatorship, while, in compensation, after 43 years of settling scores with the defeated, the victors accepted the creation of a political system that admitted both sides and was essentially identical to the system brought down by the war.  The pact did not include forgetting the past: it included shelving it, avoiding it, setting it aside; it included agreeing not to use it politically, but it didn’t include forgetting it.  From the point of view of justice, the pact contained an error, because it meant shelving, avoiding or setting aside the fact that those ultimately responsible for the war were those who won it, who provoked it with a coup d’état against a democratic regime, and because it meant relinquishing any compensation for the victims…but, from the political point of view — even from the point of view of political ethics — the pact was a wise move, because its result was a political victory for the defeated [in the Civil War] who restored a system essentially identical to that which they’d defended in the war.

The comparison to Egypt is inexact because Egypt did not have a civil war but it did have a democratic government after the 1919 Revolution led by Saad Zaghloul (whose portrait I posted some months ago) though by the time the military launched its coup d’état in 1952 — which, misleadingly, was called a revolution — the once-democratic government had been subverted by the King and had become every bit as decrepit and corrupt as Mubarak’s regime so could not be said to be a vehicle for the people’s political aspirations.  But, in the months and years ahead, we should keep an alert eye for any sign that a pact is being forged to shelve the past.  How will we know it is a shelving, not a forgetting?  One indicator: a few highly visible prosecutions of particularly detested figures from the old regime in lieu of wholesale reform or deeper investigation.  So it is good that Mubarak will go on trial, but it remains to be seen how deep the process will go and therefore whether some light will be shined on the abuses of the past.

Update 1: In an opinion piece in the Washington Post, David Ignatius makes the least compelling case possible for the merits of forgetting history:

Revolutions can go off the rails for many reasons. But history shows that one of the most dangerous (if also understandable) mistakes is the desire to settle scores with the deposed regime. That toxic whiff of revenge has been in the air lately in Egypt, and it poses a danger for the Tahrir Revolution and the other movements that emulate it.

First of all, calling it the Tahrir Revolution suggests a rather shallow understanding of what happened in those 18 days: to people watching video feeds, Tahrir Square was the focus because most of the television crews stayed in Cairo but the revolution was national and the demonstrations in Alexandria and Suez, in particular, were instrumental in putting pressure on the regime.  But, second, Ignatius seems to see any prosecution of Mubarak as vengeful rather than legal, though it could be both, and he argues for a South African Truth and Reconciliation Committee-style investigation of past abuses, which would be great except that thus far in Egypt there has been too much institutional continuity — witness the SCAF itself — for that to be possible.

Update 2: This photo from Al Jazeera shows the size of the turnout in Tahrir Square today, which suggests something of the scale of disappointment in the leadership by the SCAF thus far.  It is also the first protest since the early days of the revolution in which the Muslim Brotherhood did not participate, which may be a sign of their cooperation with the SCAF but also makes the size of the crowd an indication that liberal civil society groups can motivate large turnouts on their own.

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